There wasn't much food. Noodles. Eggs. Maybe leftover chicken and rice if Andrea Aquino and the two high school teammates she was living with were lucky. But the food would always be gone in two, three days, and then attention would turn to where the next meal was coming from.
She tried to ignore that she sometimes felt hungry. That she was sick of noodles and eggs. She tried not to think of how she ended up here, in Paterson, New Jersey, back in 2015, so far from her home in Caacupe, Paraguay.
Go with the flow, she told herself. Just eat what you got.
She felt deceived. Homesick. She wished she could tell her mother, Nilda Aquino, what was happening. But she couldn't. Nilda, who was still living in Caacupe, would panic if she found out her daughter wasn't eating regularly. If she found out her daughter, then a 6'7" sophomore basketball star at Eastside High School in Paterson, was being shuttled from home to home, with little understanding or control of her situation.
Aquino tried to act like things were normal. Ignore her doubts. Perfect her drop step after practice. But America didn't glitter the way it had in her head. America didn't deliver the opportunities it had promised.
Just eat what you got.
About three years earlier, Aquino was walking down the street a couple blocks from the home she shared with her mother, sister and two brothers in Caacupe when a man on a motorcycle, named Alfredo Salinas, stopped her. He was a friend of Aquino's mother, but Aquino didn't know him.
"You know you can be a superstar in basketball?" Salinas said to Aquino, who, at 14 years old, was already 6'7".
She shook her head, slumped her shoulders. She often did that: shrank. Basketball? she thought. She didn't play basketball. Everyone assumed she did. She was taller than anyone, towering over classmates since second grade when she sprouted to 5'10".
The man took a picture of her. It was a little strange, but Aquino quickly forgot about it. She was used to people pointing, gawking at her. Treating her like a strange bird, like the indigenous yellow crested doraditos hovering nearby.
She hardly left home during these early teenage years, hoping to avoid stares and rude comments, unless she had to accompany her mom to sell homemade items: pan con queso (bread with cheese), guava jam, perfume and laundry detergent. Nilda would travel to Brazil and Argentina, buying and selling merchandise. She also worked in a government office that was part of the Ministry of Public Health and Social Welfare. Aquino's father wasn't in the picture, having left when she was a baby, and money was scarce. Nilda did whatever she had to do to provide.
They had a small, bright red motorcycle they'd ride from house to house on selling days, hoping to make enough to put food on the table. Aquino learned to drive the motorcycle at age 13, her lanky body barely staying on. Her mother would sit behind her, hugging tightly as they breezed through narrow roads.
Aquino was embarrassed to be in public because of her height. Kids bullied her at school, on the street. Called her Giraffe. Avatar. Freak. Stairs. Straw. Skinnybrains. Even adults laughed at her.
"It really hurt me," she says.
She started hiding. Started taking a different route home from school on the side streets. "I didn't want anyone to tease me," she says. Once, as a nine-year-old and already 6'0", she couldn't attend a wedding because she couldn't find an outfit that would fit her.
She cried herself to sleep some nights, whispering to God in between sobs:
Why am I so tall?
I don't want to be tall.
Why are my legs so long?
She believed in God. Believed He had to have some higher purpose. But the bullying persisted and hiding was temporary relief. If she could hide, then she could disappear. If she could disappear, then no one could hurt her. "I had to change her school two times because she was the tallest," Nilda says, "She felt that she didn't fit."
Salinas told Nilda that he had connections with the Paraguayan Basketball Federation, and that Andrea could move to Asuncion, the capital, to play for a club team. She didn't have any skills but was athletic, leading her middle-school handball team to three championships.
So Aquino made the move. She felt homesick at first, living in Asuncion. Her mom was two-and-a-half hours away by bus. And basketball was a challenge. The first time she dribbled? The ball soared out of bounds. The first time she shot? She missed badly. But she worked at her skills and developed a silky form and the ability to run the floor like a guard. She started blocking shots, once swatting the ball into the third row.
Once, in practice, she tried to dunk the ball but missed, grabbing the rim. Someone was filming the play, and Aquino put it on her Facebook page. A friend shared the video. A Paraguayan American man, who was from Paterson but had family in Paraguay, saw the video and reached out to Aquino.
The man, whom Aquino does not feel comfortable naming, promised her that if she came to America with him, he would get her a college basketball scholarship at a university like Rutgers. A contract with Nike. A chance at the WNBA. He promised Nilda he'd help her financially, too—that he'd bring her clothes so she could resell them.
That last part sold Aquino: the thought of her mother no longer having to sell guava jam. No longer aching after long days selling from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. before moving to her next job. No longer enduring humiliating moments, like the time the two of them knocked on the door of a woman who yelled: "WHAT DO YOU WANT?! I DON'T WANT ANYTHING!"
Aquino remembers the disappointment setting in her mother's face, the way she tried to hide it. Or the times she couldn't, when she'd see tears streaming down her face. "She had so many responsibilities," Aquino says.
When the man spoke to Aquino, it was the first time someone viewed her body not as an aberration but as a gift. An asset. Something that could make her famous. Get her an education. Save her mother.
She was reminded of what Salinas told her, and it now seemed real. You know you could be a superstar?
She agreed to come to America despite her mother's reservations. She really wanted to take the opportunity, and her mom became supportive. The man told them she'd be attending Princeton Day Academy in Bowie, Maryland. If anyone asked, Aquino would refer to the man as her "cousin." He would pretend to be her legal guardian for school documents. Without knowing English, Aquino hopped on a plane to New Jersey on April 14, 2015. She was 16 years old.
But she didn't end up in Bowie enrolled in Princeton Day Academy; she instead moved to Paterson to attend a public school, International High, that didn't have a basketball team while playing for another school in the same district, Eastside. It all confused Aquino, but she didn't know how the U.S. school systems worked, despite all of the research she and Nilda did beforehand. It was the first of many lies Aquino was fed as she was eventually left in the care of Eastside's coaches, who didn't take care of her.
Steve Politi and Matthew Stanmyre, reporters with NJ Advance Media, published a series of investigative reports in 2017, in which Aquino was found to be one of at least eight international players at Eastside to fall victim to what a leading immigration attorney at the time called "child smuggling and child trafficking" to create an "international pipeline" to the prep powerhouse, according to the report, while school officials turned a "blind eye." (Politi and Stanmyre's reporting led to sanctions against the school, firings and statewide and federal legal investigations but no charges.)
Aquino wasn't explicitly named in the initial report, but it was easy to identify her. She was referred to as a "player from Paraguay" and was identified as "the girl." "How are you going to say someone, but not say her name?" Aquino asks.
She didn't speak publicly about Eastside or the investigation as it played out—and as her profile grew, rising up the recruiting rankings to No. 7 by the time she signed with Oregon State in March 2017, becoming the highest-ranked player to ever sign with the program. And she didn't in the years that followed, either. She was afraid that talking about what she endured in New Jersey would jeopardize her chances of staying in America or keeping her scholarship.
Now, she's ready to share her story.
Everything looked beautiful to Aquino when she first landed in Paterson. The neighborhood she was staying in seemed really nice. Almost like a movie to her. She stayed with the man for a bit, but then he told her, casually, that he'd be working a lot and since there wouldn't be anyone to help her with her homework, he would find her a teacher who would help her with her English.
One afternoon, she went with the man to a house and was greeted by a Dominican woman: "Cuando te mudas?" the woman asked her. When are you moving in? Aquino was confused; she didn't know she was moving in. She would soon learn that she was only supposed to stay at this new home for two weeks.
After she started playing for Eastside, her new coaches there were supposedly looking for another home for her. In the meantime, the Dominican woman cleaned up her basement for Aquino. Aquino slept on a pullout couch, though it was not long enough. She had her own bathroom, but it didn't have a shower. She had to walk through the house, through rooms filled with strangers, to bathe upstairs.
Aquino felt the woman had good intentions. She told her she had no idea that Aquino would be living there for a long period of time. Aquino sensed that the woman didn't want to get involved with something she didn't know much about, something that could possibly be illegal.
That's when Aquino realized the man and her new coaches didn't have a plan. "I couldn't ask questions because I didn't really know the language," she says. "I was so innocent. I didn't know what was going on. I thought that was just the process."
She started playing AAU basketball with the New Jersey Sparks, turning heads on the circuit. Slowly learning English. But she didn't have any money. Didn't have health insurance or access to much food. What the hell is going on? she thought.
The Dominican woman, concerned for her own children's safety and sensing that Aquino's stay could be illegal, called Aquino's mother to discuss the possibility of sending Aquino back to Paraguay. She thought that would be the best solution for Aquino.
After that, the state's Division of Child Protection and Permanency came to the home to interview the Dominican woman. Aquino had no idea how they became aware of her situation. She packed her bags, thinking she was going back home. The Dominican woman's daughter told her she was ungrateful, believing she was the one who called the agency.
But she hadn't. It would later be revealed that a teacher at Eastside had done so, unbeknownst to Aquino, who was shocked, confused and didn't understand what was happening. She didn't even say goodbye, because the family viewed her as someone who wanted to hurt them, which was never Aquino's intention. She was grateful they had given her a place to stay.
She thought about returning home to Paraguay, but one of her new teammates convinced her not to. The teammate had tears in her eyes, telling Aquino, "There's a bright future for you." The teammate, who had come from Nigeria, was living at the home of Eastside's track and field coach. She told Aquino she could live there too.
So Aquino moved for the third time in a matter of months, into the home with the eggs and noodles. She felt unsettled, unsure of what was happening. She and the teammate were living on the third floor of a building, along with a kind old woman they called "Auntie." Eventually, another teammate from Nigeria joined them there. Space was limited.
What made the situation bearable was that Aquino felt accepted on the court. Teammates and friends loved her. And they saw her height as a good thing. She could relax her shoulders when she walked in the halls. She didn't have to steel herself for comments in the supermarket. Once, kids asked her for her autograph and a picture.
Still, she missed her mom. Missed how proud Nilda would be when she'd bring home a high grade on a test, making honor roll. Nilda would be so happy she'd start crying, hoping her daughter could succeed academically in ways that she couldn't. Nilda didn't have the financial resources to finish her college degree in chemical sciences.
Aquino would think of her mother making her favorite dishes back home: fish soup and sopa Paraguaya, similar to cornbread. She'd think of her baking bread—the way she'd knead the dough, rolling it onto her table, then folding it into figure-eight twists to bake. And she thought of what her mom used to tell her when she was a child: There's a reason why God put us on the path that we are on. We must continue until He says stop.
Aquino tried to keep faith while in Paterson, while competing at the highest level in the state. She'd stay late after practice, waiting for a different coach because that coach sometimes bought her dinner. "That coach knew something wasn't right," Aquino says. "But he never did anything about it."
She found milk and snacks at an after-school program. A trainer outside of the high school sometimes bought her Wendy's. She was grateful, but it wasn't enough. The weather was getting colder, too, and her coaches told her they'd get her a winter jacket or a coat but never did. She made do with a sweater. "We were just surviving with whatever we had," Aquino says.
Once, during summer AAU basketball, she twisted her ankle so badly she couldn't walk. A trainer taped her foot, and she continued to play, wincing in pain. She iced and iced, managing to walk again in a week. She didn't know what kind of medical care she could get for it without insurance. She had to press on.
She became close with the teammates she was living with, but they were struggling to adapt, too. They all talked about the risks they took, leaving their families behind. "America is the land of the dream," Aquino says, "We were three young ladies trying to survive and keep going."
As much as Aquino wanted to tell her mom what was happening, she didn't. She didn't want her mom to worry. It's going to get better, Aquino told herself. It's going to get better.
At the same time, locals began to speculate: How could one team have so many tall players from different countries? Focus turned to Aquino, the tallest. She tried to ignore it. Until she couldn't. After the NJ Advance reports came out, she couldn't leave the house without reporters and cameras waiting for her.
"Get in! Fast!" her coach would say, opening the car door to pick her up in the morning before school. The coaches told the players not to talk to anyone. Not to give an interview to anyone.
When Aquino read the NJ Advance Media reports, she was surprised to read the word trafficking. She didn't know much about it. At first, she didn't think the term applied to her situation because she thought trafficking solely meant sexual abuse. (She was not sexually abused, she says.)
In fall 2015, school officials filed the report to the Division of Child Protection and Permanency after Aquino confided in a teacher about her living situation, according to NJ Advance Media. Another teacher was quoted in the article, which was the first to reference Aquino by name: "It is evident that Andrea may be the victim of neglect, child exploitation, emotional abuse and child endangerment."
The scandal, which also involved Eastside's boys program, led to sanctions against both teams, including a two-year state tournament ban, $1,500 in fines and a two-year probationary period for the athletic department. NJ Advance Media also reported that officials from New Jersey's Immigration and Customs Enforcement office were investigating.
Aquino's coaches kept telling her they'd help her find a lawyer, but they didn't. "It was a circle of lies," she says. The Department of Homeland Security contacted her, and she had a meeting with them. She was stunned. What if they take me back home? Back to the motorcycle. Back to being called Avatar. She didn't know who she could trust.
She finally told her mom. Nilda, who had trusted the Paraguayan American man and her coaches, felt frustrated, betrayed. It hurt her that she was far away, unable to protect her daughter: "It was very difficult for me to see that my young, 17-year-old daughter, was going through this hard situation in such a big country."
Nilda called the Paraguayan consul in New York. The consul found Aquino a lawyer, who helped her secure an F-1 Visa, which she'd need to accept a college athletic scholarship.
But the stress mounted. One afternoon, sitting in her friend's car, she started to feel more infuriated. She tried to hold back tears, reaching for the dial, cranking up the music, looking out the window. Her friend tried to make her giggle, fist-bumping her shoulder. She burst into tears.
She realized she was part of a business. She wasn't treated as a person, but a body. A body that could dunk, could dominate. A body that was celebrated but never cared for.
Aquino's lawyer accompanied her to the meeting with Homeland Security in New York. She felt nervous and dropped her phone, breaking the screen. She rushed to the bathroom to calm down. Homeland Security, she says, told her that she needed to find a prep school and recommended that it would be better to find one outside of New Jersey.
Meanwhile, Aquino had her pick of any Division I school she wanted, having grown to her current height of 6'9" and averaged 17.1 points, 12.2 rebounds and 7.0 blocks per game as a junior at Eastside. It was hard to explain her situation to college coaches. She was scared of getting deported and felt the urge to commit quickly. She researched Oregon State and loved it right away. The coaches treated her with kindness and respect. She liked the small-town atmosphere in Corvallis. Plus, the Beavers had made back-to-back Sweet 16 runs and a Final Four appearance in 2016.
Coach Scott Rueck was impressed with Aquino's versatility. The first time he saw her at a game in Paterson, she hit a trail three. He had never seen someone that tall with that kind of mobility. "She doesn't necessarily have a position; that's the amazing part of her game," Rueck says. "That skill set that she has is so uncommon."
While on her visit, Aquino met Kevin and Emily Morris, parents of another prospect, Patricia Morris, a 6'7" center from Duarte, California, who would be signing at OSU. Kevin and Emily agreed to become Aquino's legal guardians, and Aquino moved in with them and attended Ribet Academy, a small private school near Los Angeles, for her final prep season.
Kevin and Emily were welcoming, patient. It took Aquino time to trust them, as she was skeptical of intentions. "She had been used so much," Emily says, "and I think she was afraid when my husband started helping her at first. She was like, 'What are you getting out of it?'"
Aquino came to realize they genuinely wanted to help. "We built a really close relationship and bond," Kevin says. "She became part of the family." She also saw a new way of living, as Emily, 6'3", and Patricia, 6'7", didn't slouch. They proudly wore heels. Patricia often wore her hair in a bun on top of her head, making her even taller. She wasn't hiding. She wasn't ashamed.
It was the first time Aquino saw height as beautiful, as powerful. She had a family that took her shopping for clothes that fit her. They all became closer. She and Emily would jam out to a Spanish-language radio station in Emily's Honda Civic on Friday mornings on the way to Ribet. The family went to the beach, once snapping a photo of Aquino jumping high in the air, arms sprawled out, tongue hanging out, happy. Free.
Aquino says she doesn't hold anything against the people in New Jersey and has forgiven them. She feels grateful for the friends she made there. She learned how much she could endure.
She didn't have to endure anymore with the Morrises. She could let her guard down. Her first Christmas with them, the whole house seemed to glow with lights. "Gifts!" Emily called. Aquino rushed out of her bedroom and found presents waiting for her. She felt like she had a home.
When Aquino joined Ribet for fall league ahead of the 2017-18 season, teams in the area wondered where this player, who was draining shot after shot and whose arms nearly touched the net when she stretched them into the air, had come from. Paraguay to New Jersey to California? It didn't make sense.
Aquino wasn't ready to talk about it. She was afraid of somehow losing her scholarship to OSU. She was afraid to say anything on social media; one tweet could alter her life.
She played with an urgency, laboring through two workouts every Sunday, the first beginning at 6:30 a.m. One workout, she was wheezing after every jump shot. She had the flu. She was also jogging on a sore ankle, having rolled it a week prior when a girl undercut her during a fall league game. She still drained jumper after jumper, one of the few girls in the Duarte gym full of men, including then-USC star point guard Jordan McLaughlin, who now plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
"She's got a game kind of like Elena Delle Donne, to be able to stretch the defense, knock down shots and be able to post up. She's just smooth," says Tracy Murray, a former UCLA basketball star who had a lengthy NBA career. He was at that workout.
When the season started, Aquino seemed to float through triple-teams, unbothered by girls hacking at her. But sometimes she hesitated offensively. Waited for the ball to come to her rather than demanding it. "She doesn't even know how dominant she can be," says Darryl Gowens, then Ribet's assistant coach.
During a team weightlifting session, Aquino bench pressed, threw medicine balls against the wall. She turned around and saw one of her teammates stop squatting before the allotted time was up. The girl, resting on a mat, reasoned that she had already finished her set. Aquino shook her head. "Keep going!" Aquino said, "You don't ever stop!"
She began to jump rope. She got caught in the short rope a few times, alternating her feet. The rope wasn't long enough. She started laughing, impulsively, as if to make fun of herself before anyone else could. But she looked around, and no one else was laughing. No one had noticed. She blushed, looked surprised.
In the months after, she stopped asking God why He made her the way she was. "I came to a point where I just decided, I'm not going to live a life just hiding from everybody just because I'm tall," Aquino says. "Just because I was scared of people teasing me."
She realized that this was the body God gave her. This was a body that could overpower triple-teams. This was a body that could survive.
Emily took her dress shopping for prom. Aquino chose a gorgeous, gray-blue dress, shorter in the front, longer in the back, with a small slit down the side, allowing a sliver of her leg to peek through. With pink lip gloss, dangling silver earrings and matching silver bracelet, she looked beautiful, strong, confident.
This is who I am, she said to herself in front of the mirror. I can't change it. This is how I came into this world, and I can't change it.
For so long, she had pretended to have confidence. She had hoped if she kept pretending, the positive messages she'd say to herself would become true. Real. And they did.
She was learning how to love herself.
I am tall. I am a basketball player. I am more than a basketball player. This is who I am. This is me.
When she arrived in Corvallis, she began to make friends, began to come out of her shell. People knew her for her sweet, funny, vibrant personality. Everyone called her "Dre."
Her life was coming together, but her mom's was spiraling. They remained close, talking every day, but it hurt Aquino to see how much her mom was struggling in Paraguay. She was in debt and had lost her job after coming to visit Aquino in America.
Nowadays, Aquino almost lives a double life: trying to make a name for herself here, thinking of her mother there. Mentally she is here, there, here, there.
She sends whatever money she can back home to her mom. "It hurts to see how hard your mom works. Until this day she just works so hard to have a better life," Aquino says, starting to cry. "My mom is my motivation. That's why I work so hard. That's why I don't give up."
Nilda is happy that Aquino will earn a degree. She wishes she could finish college herself. She tried to go back recently, but classes were online due to COVID-19, and she can't afford a laptop.
Nilda is proud of her daughter's newfound confidence. Students at OSU often ask Aquino: "How can you be so confident, being that tall?" as if the two somehow are mutually exclusive.
Aquino is honest: "I worked on it."
It's still a struggle to find jeans that fit. It's still awkward when people stare. "She knows every room she goes into, there's always going to be heads that are turning," says Usach Nelson, one of her closest friends on campus.
It's been more than two years since Aquino played in an official game. She redshirted her first year at Oregon State due to an undisclosed medical condition, then didn't play last season while recovering from a foot injury. The school lists her as a redshirt sophomore. She is hoping to be cleared by OSU's medical staff to play this season, which is expected to begin in late November. (The Pac-12 has not yet released a schedule.)
She's been with the team even when not playing, tasting success as she sat on the bench when the team advanced to the Sweet 16 in the 2019 NCAA tournament. Rueck says the energy she brings and the way she uplifts her teammates have been critical.
She is majoring in business management and plans to someday become a coach, hopefully after returning to the court for OSU and playing professionally in the WNBA. For now, she yearns to be back in the center of Gill Coliseum, embraced by fans after games.
She knows what it feels like to have children, parents, grandparents rush the court, surrounding her. After one game, she stood in the middle of a crowd, opened her arms wide, her wingspan long enough to hold numerous kids inside. She hugged them, smiled with them. She looked at her arms, her legs. Her feet, her hands.
This is who I am. This is me.
Mirin Fader is a staff writer for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, the Football Writers Association of America, the Los Angeles Press Club and the Best American Sports Writing series. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.
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